Almost everything about Nintendo's Wii U, the Japanese gaming giant's new home console, makes absolutely no sense.
It's a wacky, stream-of-consciousness nostalgia jamboree, and it feels like the handiwork of a distracted inventor who's just spent five sleepless nights drunk out of their mind on honey liqueur in Shibuya.
Its launch line-up is made up of a bizarre grab-bag of retro and AAA games running on previous-generation hardware -- except for a massive touchscreen-controller that looks like a mid-90s concept videophone. It also has no distinct target audience, no exceptional technology and no obvious role in the living room. And it's pretty pricey.
Luckily, the reason you should buy one is very simple: it's fun. It's so fun. It is a toy from another universe. It's like someone Instagrammed an Xbox and hacked it to play Mario.
It's absolutely wonderful. And for gamers of a certain age, it's quite difficult to play without wanting to weep.
What actually is the Wii U?
So what is the Wii U? That's actually fairly tricky to answer. And if you've seen a picture of it, that probably doesn't help. The internet has demonstrated that even people preparing to buy a Wii U don't really get what it is, and why it exists. So let's have another go:
The Wii U is an all-new Nintendo games console which uses the same 'magic wand' remotes as the original Wii - and runs old Wii games - but adds the twist of its large 6.2-inch touchscreen 'GamePad'. The GamePad is the main way to interact with the Wii U, and it makes new types of single-player and multi-player experiences possible. The console also features HD graphics, deeper and more detailed games and a selection of new online experiences.
What it isn't is an add-on for the Wii. It might seem odd to go over that, but several non-gamers HuffPost showed the GamePad to seemed to think that was the case. Nintendo hasn't done a good job making this point, and the name probably didn't help. (Our theory? Unlike the difference between 'Nes' and 'SuperNes', the distinguishing syllable is too soft, and comes at the end of the phrase... Anyone?)
It's also not much of a media hub. As with the original Wii, the Wii U doesn't play DVDs or Blu-ray discs, and while it has Netflix and Lovefilm apps - and can be used as a TV remote - it doesn't offer anything like the connected living room experience of an Xbox 360 or PS3.
Neither is this a next-gen console. Not really. In graphical power, the Wii U is just about able to cope with current gen games like FIFA 13 and Mass Effect 3. But while the graphics look great they also seem a little sluggish in terms of frame rate, and appear to have some of the shinier details removed from some titles. Take Madden 13 - the Wii U game is the same as the Xbox version, but lacks the new physics engine which made the game so much 'punchier' (literally). It's little removals like this which clue you into the fact that the Wii U is going to look like a retro console this time next year.
Retro in more ways than one
But while some gamers see it as a flaw, it's that 'retro' feel which is really key to the Wii U's appeal.
Everything about it - from the white and black plastic design of the hardware to the sounds it makes when it loads up - is intended to evoke a warm glow in the hearts of ageing gamers, and make kids smile. It's all part of what makes Nintendo special.
Just as Apple has its ultra-clean, 'just works' simplicity, Nintendo has 8-bit Mario, kooky background music, over-large buttons and ridiculous Mii-avatars. When you transfer data from an original Wii - a labourious process involving SD cards and a Wii emulator running 'behind' the Wii U - your old save games are transported on a rocket by little Pikmin aliens. When you load up a Mario-themed mini-game in Nintendo Land, the title included in the Premium Pack edition of the console but available separately too, you can just make out an 16-bit era plumber in the background, like a half-forgotten dream. It's a design language which is profoundly nostalgic and pleasant.
Many of the launch games are nostalgia-fests too. Nintendo Land, covered in detail elsewhere, is made up of lots of small tastes of old gaming experiences. Some recall PacMan, others Mario Kart or Asteroids. It's an occasionally distracting title in single-player but a riot when played with other people in the living room. Our household liked Mario Chase best - essentially a game of virtual tag, with one player running away with the help of a gamepad map and the other chasing with the Wii Mote - was funny and quick enough not to sour. The mix of some players using Wii Motes and one using the GamePad is awkward at first, but if you try not to think too hard it usually comes together nicely.
Other launch titles like New Super Mario Bros U and even Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing: Transformed felt like beautiful relics from another era. Mario, in particular, was so familiar it might as well have come loaded on a plastic cartridge.
That said, unlike the original Wii, whose motion controlled tennis and boxing Wii Sports games were so easy and intituitve that virtually everyone in the world understood it, played it, bought it and threw it in a drawer, the Wii U has nothing quite that good. It's just not possible to hand someone who 'doesn't play games' a GamePad and expect them to know what to do. The WiiMote was a work of genius, a once-a-generation innovation which changed how games were played, for six months or so. The GamePad is a creative take on gaming, but as an innovation it's not in the same league. What that means for the Wii U's sales, we don't know.
Nintendo: now for real gamers too
Take a look at the Wii U's extensive launch line-up and you'll see this isn't just a console for kids, families and people who like Mario. Games available include Mass Effect 3, Batman: Arkham City, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and ZombiU, an excellent and all-new first-person survival adventure.
For the most part these games work really nicely. The console is powerful enough to run them well, and all use the GamePad touchscreen to good effect. ZombiU's requirement for players to physically look down at their 'backpack' while swapping items adds tension to the game, and FIFA's addition of draw-your-own-tactics is another good feature. Nintendo's addition of a 'Pro' controller (almost identical to Microsoft's Xbox 360 pad) helps sooth the transition too
Still, there's a big question as to how long this rapprochement with 'real gamers' can last. With new Xbox and PlayStation consoles (probably) coming next year, the Wii U will likely be left behind sharpish. And whether Wii U owners will buy enough copies of these games to justify them being made in future remains to be seen. All we can do is watch. It's sort of like a political coalition: we all know Nintendo and Call of Duty don't really go together, but they're both going to have to put up with it... until they don't.
Minor niggles and major worries
The Wii U feels unfinished in several key respects. On first boot-up it requires a long, untidy update to get it working, and even then several of the apps and all the games require patches on first load. The 'Miiverse' social network is a surprisingly cute way to boost your ego by posting drawings and other comments, but it's fluffy and shallow. Then there's the odd addition of the 'Wii Mode' through which you run Virtual Console games, and the long menu delays which slow navigating the system to a crawl. The ability to play games on the GamePad while someone watches TV is lovely - but doesn't work in the same way for all games, which is confusing. It's not a broken console - but you can definitely see the scaffolding.
The major worry here is the cost-benefit analysis every family will have to do in the next 12 months when the other new consoles get released. If last time around is anything to go by, you'll be playing your new console for the best part of a decade. The 'other two' will be stacked in hardware terms to cope with a huge range of new gaming experiences, where the Wii U will undoubtedly fall behind.
What you'll ultimately have to decide is whether £250-300 plus games is fair for a console which, unless sales pick up massively, or developers get seriously inspired by the GamePad, you'll probably mainly use to play evolutionary versions of Mario, Mario Kart, Zelda and a few key oddities like ZombiU.
Above: Reggie Fils-Aime, president and chief operating officer of Nintendo of America
Conclusion: remember what games are for
For us, it is worth it - for the simple reason that the Wii U is hugely fun to play, right now. Try getting your mum to play Call of Duty. Or even Fez. She won't. But she'll play Nintendo Land, and you'll love playing with her.
And that, in the end, is Nintendo's best hope - that people experience the Wii U and remember that games are, ultimately, better when played with other people, in a room. That no games character in history has been as bright, and charming, and colourful as Mario. That no adventure ever seemed so epic as when Zelda set off to find the chalice of whatever, and no race ever as tense as that round of Mario Kart when you physically knocked out your brother to avoid him launching a red turtle shell at your gorilla.
Yes, there is still a significant, growing place for action-packed, realistic, powerful games filled with death, misery, angst and Human Emotions. Commercially, if not ethically, there is also a place for sexist trash which shares many of the same qualities. Games are a wide spectrum, like any art-form. These things can co-exist. And currently they only co-exist on one single console. This one.
Would the gaming world be poorer without Nintendo? Of course.
But it would also be poorer without the Wii U. For while this has been a spluttering, soft launch for Nintendo's new hope - and while it does have more than a ring of the Dreamcast about it - it's also a bright, bold, honest and joyful ode to playing with toys, and with people.
How can you look at this machine and feel anything but hope, and love?
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